Saunders Says He's Proud Father of MVP Garnett

May 4, 2004

Kevin Garnett came to Minnesota a gangly 19-year-old from a high school in Chicago. Like many his age, he was loaded with dreams and ambition. He told executives with the Minnesota Timberwolves that one of his dreams was to become the best player in the National Basketball Association.

"At that time, he was the first high school kid in the league in 20 years. He was 190 pounds dripping wet," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. "Nobody knew what to expect."

On Monday, the dream was fulfilled. After finishing second last year to San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Garnett won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, which goes to the NBA's most valuable player. He became the first Minnesota professional athlete to win a major-league MVP award since the Twins' Rod Carew received the American League's highest individual honor in 1977.

"I feel like a proud father," Saunders said. "I hope this is just the beginning."

Garnett wore a beige suit, white sneakers and a huge smile when he accepted the award from team owner Glen Taylor. NBA Commissioner David Stern will formally present it to him again tonight before the Wolves begin their second-round playoff series with the Sacramento Kings at Target Center.

As secrets go, the announcement that Garnett had won the award was not exactly well kept. For averaging 24.2 points a game (third-best in the league) and 13.9 rebounds (best in the NBA) and leading the Wolves to the best record in the Western Conference, Garnett received 120 of a possible 123 first-place votes from a media panel. It was the second-highest percentage of first-place votes in the award's 48 years.

"Not to disrespect the award, (but) my goals are a lot bigger than an individual award," said Garnett, 27, who's in his ninth season. "My big focus is winning the championship."

After Saunders informed the Wolves on Monday morning there would be a news conference later in the day to present the MVP award, Garnett told his teammates, "This is a team award."

Later, at the news conference, Garnett said, "Even though it's an individual award, I wouldn't be nothing without those knuckleheads." He added that his teammates have "put fun back in basketball for me. They make a person like me glow."

You would think the $28 million in salary he is receiving this year and the five-year, $100 million extension that kicks in next season would be enough to make anyone glow. But Garnett needed more than money. He needed success. A new cast of teammates has brought that, helping Garnett lift the Wolves to the best record in franchise history as well as their first division title and first No. 1 playoff seed. Other than former Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird, Garnett is the only player to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for five consecutive seasons. This season he became the first player in 29 years to lead the NBA in total points and rebounds.

"I can definitely get better," he said.

That has been his mantra since he first arrived in Minnesota fresh out of Farragut Academy in Chicago and one year removed from his South Carolina roots. He went to Farragut as a senior after he was one of five black students accused of fighting with a white student his junior year at Mauldin High School in South Carolina. Though some said Garnett was an innocent bystander, he and the other four black students were charged with second-degree lynching, which, in South Carolina, includes simple assault.

Garnett qualified for pre-trial intervention, but his mother didn't want him to return to Mauldin High, so off he went to Farragut to play for a coach he knew from AAU tournaments. Since then, Garnett hasn't gotten into trouble -- he has created it for opposing teams.

"He's just starting the prime of his career," Wolves Vice President Kevin McHale said. "He's going to improve. He reminds me all the time how basketball should be played."

McHale and Saunders liked the way Garnett played when they first saw him work out at a Chicago gym. The Wolves had the fifth overall pick in the 1995 draft and were interested in four players projected to go ahead of Garnett. That soon changed.

"After five minutes, I said we'd better hope he's there at five," Saunders said. "Even though he was 7-1, when he ran, you'd think he was 6-3."

Even now, Garnett can run as well as players a foot shorter. At times this season he was the Wolves' point guard.

"I call him a freak of nature," Saunders said. "He started out as a (small forward) for us. He was a match-up nightmare. Teams tried putting 6-foot-5, 6-6 players on him. They tried to muscle him. He just shot over them."

Though he is at least 7-1, Garnett will not admit to being more than 6-11 and refuses to allow the team to list him as taller than that. Saunders refers to him as "6-foot-13."

"He was afraid being a 7-footer would make him a center," Saunders said. "Other teams list some guys at 7-1, and he's an inch or two taller."

So, Garnett might actually be 6-foot-14. Whatever his height, he creates a sizable headache for opponents.

Early in his rookie season, when he became known as "Da Kid," Garnett was frustrated he wasn't developing at a faster rate. McHale and Saunders gave him an index card that showed the rookie statistics for established veterans Shawn Kemp, Scottie Pippen and Robert Horry. They wanted Garnett to realize that those players had trouble early, too. He taped that index card in his locker and looked at it often.

"When he was having some struggles," McHale said, "I reminded him, 'When you get knocked on your rear end, are you going to sit or come up swinging?' "

He came up swinging. But first, he had to play more. He didn't become a starter until midway through his rookie season, when Saunders became head coach. When Garnett came out of the game after his first start, he put his arm around Saunders and told him, "Thanks, coach, for letting me play."

"Little did I know," Saunders said, "I'd be thanking him."

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